'Mr. Church' Screenwriter on Eddie Murphy Movie's Long Journey to Big Screen, "Magical Negro" Criticism
Susan McMartin, who wrote the screenplay based on her real-life friendship with the cook who became her best friend and father figure, talks about the differences between fact and fiction.
[Warning: The following story contains spoilers about the movie Mr. Church.]
Susan McMartin wrote the screenplay for the indie drama Mr. Church, starring Eddie Murphy, based on her own experience with the real Mr. Church, the cook who suddenly appeared in her life when she was 4 years old and with whom she grew to become close friends.
"He was like my father figure. He was my best friend. He was the reason I became a writer. He was the reason I survived childhood. He was everything to me," McMartin tells The Hollywood Reporter about the film's inspiration.
And while McMartin says she long knew she would write a story about the person she calls "the most important man in my life," it wasn't until she became a mom, and the real Mr. Church had died, that she realized how she could best honor him and what he meant to her.
"One day I was taking a walk and I thought if my daughter can't meet him in real life, I'll have her meet him in the story," McMartin says. "That's where it started and then I went back and began the story how it started." Still while McMartin says the script "poured out of" her, it took a while for the movie to make it to the big screen, with the film opening in select theaters on Sept. 16 after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The project, which long had Samuel L. Jackson attached to play the role of Mr. Church, was in the works for 10 years, with Jackson, potential directors and financing coming and going. Ultimately it all fell into place, but with Murphy in the title role, and McMartin believes that was the way it was meant to be.
"I say the movie took over 10 years to get made because it was waiting for Eddie Murphy to do a movie like this," McMartin says. "I can't imagine anyone else in this role, and he's so brilliant in it."
The writer, who also works on CBS' Mom, talked to THR about what it was like to work with Murphy, the differences between the movie and her real life as well as criticism the film has received for Murphy's role being an example of the "Magical Negro" character.
How much of what's in the movie was based on your own life and friendship with the real Mr. Church and how much was fictionalized?
What I portray in the movie in terms of our friendship and who he was and what he gave me and taught me, those things are absolutely true. I took creative license with my real-life story. [The real Mr. Church] came into my life when I was four. In the movie, [Charlotte is] 10. We did that mainly so that we could cast an actor who could vocalize the thoughts of a child. My mother was dying of cancer. She was not given much time to live. And he came into my life in a really roundabout way. He was brought into our life because my mom was dating a man who was married and in his married life, he had this cook. He left his family and brought with him into our life himself and his cook. The man who ended up being my stepfather was such a horrible person and didn't end up staying in my life, so I didn't want to put him in the movie, honestly, and really the greatest gift he brought into our life was the real Mr. Church. And the real Mr. Church stayed in my life until the day he died. So I wanted to highlight that relationship. My mom did survive her cancer, she was a miracle. I chose to have her die in the movie [because] I really wanted to focus on my friendship with Mr. Church and make that be the forefront of my story because that was the forefront of my personal life. My mom survived her cancer but she struggled with alcoholism and in a weird way I lost my mom to alcoholism. [The real Mr. Church] became even more important to me in my life. Because I didn't want to write a movie about my mom's drinking and go in that direction, I chose to have her pass away in the movie so I could just highlight the friendship.
Why did it take so long for the movie to get made?
It was strange because the actual writing of the movie came very fast for me. I didn't outline it. It just literally poured out of me, and I turned it in to my agents and they sent it to Sam Jackson's people and they immediately optioned it and attached Sam to star in it and for five years they had the rights to it. We were trying to get it made with Sam Jackson, and it was just this thing where either we had Sam available but we couldn't get the director we wanted or we'd have the director we wanted but Sam wasn't available. Or we couldn't get the financing. It was always something. One piece was always missing from the puzzle. After his option ran out, it just sat on the shelf for three years. … I just started to trust that it was going to find its way the way it was supposed to because every time I thought it was going to happen, it didn't. You just have to let go at a certain point and focus on other things. My manager was in a meeting with Envision Media Arts for a whole other reason, and before he left he said, "I would love to have you read this script." … They fell in love with it, and suddenly it was off the shelf again. They got [director] Bruce Beresford involved and then [producers] Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon got attached and [distributor] Cinelou. By this point we stopped thinking about Sam Jackson and just sort of said, 'Let's start fresh. Who would be at the top of our list?' And we all put Eddie Murphy. I've always been a huge fan of his. We all are. And he resembles the real Mr. Church in many ways in real life but we all thought, "This is a dream. This is a longshot. We'll send it to him and, of course, be prepared for a pass, and we'll go down the list." The minute Eddie Murphy read it and said he wanted to do it, everything went into full fast forward. We shot [the movie] in 22 days.
What was it like working with Eddie Murphy? Were you intimidated?
I grew up watching Eddie Murphy's movies and being such a huge fan of his. I've always in my heart known that's a man who's an actor. He can't do all of the things he does and all of those roles he does — he makes it look so easy but what he does in those comedies is so incredibly hard. To meet him, I was like a nervous wreck the first time I met him. I mean you're so nervous and so excited, and then I met him and I just fell in love with him. He's so kind and so soft-spoken and so humble, and we became really close on the set. [He looks so much like the real Mr. Church] that I immediately felt warmth and comfortable and affectionate towards him because of that and we just got along great. He's so kind and low-key and, on the set, just always on time, so professional, so prepared, surrounded by his kids and his girlfriend and the people that work with him It was such a great vibe. He created such a great energy. I think everybody kind of fell in love with him.
There's a lot of narration in the movie from Charlotte. Were you hesitant about doing that? Or, why did you think that was important?
Honestly some people hate voiceover, and some people don't mind voiceover. I sort of fall in between because I hate it when I'm at a movie, and sometimes I love it because it allows me to hear the interior life of a person. There was even more voiceover than there is in the movie. I think for me, this was the best way to tell the story because I wanted it to be told from an adult's point of view and because so much of [my] relationship [with the real Mr. Church] was unspoken to each other and were my observations and thoughts and my feelings, and knowing him at such a young age and growing up with him and walking through so many difficult times and secrets and a lot of mystery around him, it felt like I had to use voiceover because a lot of these thoughts were my own observations and not necessarily conversations. … Some people are saying, "Oh, the 'Magical Negro' thing." And that makes my blood turn because race is never even talked about in this movie and was never a part of our relationship. We never talked about the fact that he was black and I was white. That never even played a role in our lives. It very easily could've been a white man in the movie, but [the real Mr. Church] just happened to be black and I was white. It's sad. I get that there are some movies that are offensive in that way and make people uncomfortable but my relationship with him was so much about the love and the unconditional friendship. We never even talked about race or any of that. That's kind of hard because you want to defend yourself, and you want to say, "I'm sorry that Mr. Church happens to be black and I happen to be white, but this is a story about love and a man who was there for me when no one else was."
In the movie, Mr. Church is very private and is very insistent that Charlotte not know too much about what he does when he's not a part of their lives. How important was it to you to keep that mystery? Because as a viewer you find out more about Mr. Church's life when Charlotte does and she doesn't get a full picture until the end of the film and then it's on his terms.
It's funny because typically in a movie you want a huge mystery to be revealed and it's like you want to tie everything up in a neat bow and make sure the audience leaves going, 'Oh my God.' When I was a kid I was such a nosy little girl. But as I got older the one person I probably respected most of all was the real Mr. Church and his privacy because I honestly felt like he gave me everything and the only thing he ever asked of me was to respect his privacy. How can I not honor that? How can I not give that to him? Here was a man who was so dignified and had so much self-respect and respected others that I chose to never put him on the spot fully, and I never got all the answers because I decided if that is what he wishes, I'm going to respect that and I'm going to respect that in his death too. I'm not going to create an answer to a mystery that's not true just to honor a movie. I wanted to respect him as much in the movie as I did in real life. I wanted the audience to come to some of their own conclusions about what might've been behind his darker side. That's how life is sometimes—we only know certain parts of a person's life and we don't get to know it all. I realized in the end that I knew everything I needed to know and I knew it was important and that it's OK.